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By Keita Franklin, Ph.D. Chief Clinical Officer at Psych Hub and Taylor Adams, Manager of Workplace Mental Health at Mental Health America

Which of these statements are true?

  • Employees feel comfortable talking to their supervisors about their stress.
  • Employees feel safe using sick days to care for their mental health.
  • Employees can receive treatment for their mental health without scrutiny from their supervisors or colleagues.

From mental health experts to individuals with lived experience, all of these statements should be true; unfortunately, this is not the case for a lot of Americans, especially for those in the workforce. According to Mental Health America’s (MHA) 2019 Work Health Survey, 69 percent of employees reported that it was safer to remain silent about their stress, and over half reported they were afraid to take a day off to attend to their mental health.

Suicide is one of the nation’s leading causes of death, claiming the lives of more than 47,000 Americans each year. It is a national health crisis. Until we recognize its profound impact, the stigma around mental health will continue to directly contribute to loss of life.

Mental health experts who subscribe to a larger public health approach to suicide prevention advise creating cultures of support that are free of stigma and where help is not only easily accessible, but it is encouraged. This approach is becoming particularly critical in corporate America, where recent studies reveal an 11 percent increase in workplace suicides.

Here are five things employers can do right now to support workplace mental health:

Don’t Bury it in Human Resources

In the U.S., nearly all (98 percent) of mid to large organizations offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), but only about 4 percent of employees use them each year. All too often employee wellness is seen as just another Human Resources internal communications or benefits effort. It is important for companies to implement holistic changes to improve employee mental health such as creating a supportive workplace culture and policies that protect and encourage help-seeking behaviors.

Train Your Staff

In MHA’s 2019 Mind the Workplace report, only about a third of employees felt that they could rely on supervisor and colleague support, leading to higher levels of stress and job dissatisfaction. Considering implementing a mental health training program for supervisors and staff. It can reduce work-related sickness absences, improve working conditions, and have a positive impact on employee knowledge, behavior, and attitudes toward people with mental illness.

Raise Visibility

Increase mental health literacy to decrease stigma throughout the organization, making it more accessible to people with mental illness, and educating co-workers on the signs, symptoms and resources for help. Have resources available throughout the office, and counselors available to help with acute mental health concerns.

Open a Dialogue

It is a myth that asking someone whether they are thinking about self-harm will encourage the behavior. Employees should be encouraged to check on one another, know the warning signs of someone who may be struggling, and understand how to support and direct them to the appropriate resource. Creating a culture where these conversations are encouraged can reduce isolating behaviors. All levels of the organization can contribute to normalizing the conversation around mental health including executive leadership, Human Resources, supervisors, and staff.

Encourage a Healthy Life-Work Balance

You want your employees to strive for excellence, but employee burnout can result in rising absenteeism. Still, it can be difficult to ask them to use their own judgement to plan for their vacation days, to work after hours only when it’s absolutely necessary, and to keep reasonable working hours. Consider offering workplace programs that encourage family time, such as compressed work schedules and flex time, and remove the burden from the employee.

Once employers have laid some basic building blocks for mental health in the workplace, they can consider changing workplace cultures and implementing a comprehensive workplace wellness program.

To help employees identify mentally healthy workplaces, MHA created a program to recognize and guide employers who are committed to creating them. The Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health is a certification program created by MHA to assess workplaces in five categories: workplace culture; health insurance and benefits; employee perks and programs; legal and ethical compliance; and leadership and community engagement. The Bell Seal recognizes employer advances in workplace mental health by awarding levels of Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. By becoming Bell Seal-certified, an organization sets itself apart as a workplace that values mental health and a mentally healthy work environment for all employees. Learn more at www.mhanational.org/bestemployers.

Sources

Hanisch, S. E., Twomey, C. D., Szeto, A. C. H., Birner, U. W., Nowak, D., & Sabariego, C. (2016). The effectiveness of interventions targeting the stigma of mental illness at the workplace: A systematic review. BMC Psychiatry, 16(1), 1. doi:10.1186/s12888-015-0706-4

LaMontagne, A. D., Martin, A., Page, K. M., Reavley, N. J., Noblet, A. J., Milner, A. J., Keegel, T., & Smith, P. M. (2014). Workplace mental health: Developing an integrated intervention approach. BMC Psychiatry, 14(1), 131.

Milligan-Saville, J. S., Tan, L., Gayed, A., Barnes, C., Madan, I., Dobson, M., Bryant, R. A., Christensen, H., Mykletun, A., & Harvey, S. B. (2017). Workplace mental health training for managers and its effect on sick leave in employees: A cluster randomised controlled trial. Lancet Psychiatry, 4, 850-858.

Mental Health America (2019). Mind the Workplace 2019. Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/research-reports/2019-mind-workplace-report.

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